South Dakota is a pheasant hunter's dream no matter the approach.
For most hunters, pursuing pheasants is the pinnacle of the upland bird hunting experience. And the best pheasant hunting in the country can be found in Aberdeen, South Dakota. We recently got the chance to experience this great hunting first-hand.
To make sure we got the full non-resident experience of this prime pheasant habitat, we hunted both private land with a fully guided outfitter on private land, and public land with a DIY-style approach.
At the end of the trip, I came away realizing central South Dakota is the premiere bird hunting experience to be found here in the states.
R&R Pheasant Hunting
The greater Aberdeen area is known as THE place for some of the best wing shooting in North America. For this trip, we headed to one of the most well-known South Dakota pheasant hunting lodges in the state, R&R Pheasant Hunting in Seneca, SD, about an hour and a half from Aberdeen. I've always been a deer hunter, so pursuing wild pheasants was a totally new experience. It's safe to say my first pheasant hunting experience may have spoiled me for life. The first clue came on the drive in when my cameraman Jason Kilhoffer, and I spotted literally dozens of birds just hanging out on the sides of the roads.
It was in the early 2000s when Sal Roseland convinced his family that opening a hunting lodge at the ranch was a good idea. They were a little hesitant at first, but years later they have a dedicated base of clients, some of whom return twice a year during the pheasant hunting season. They're drawn mostly because of the down-home atmosphere and hospitality. Plus more bird sightings in a day than most hunters will see in a week on public. The property, which has been in the family since 1881, is still a functioning ranch. As they drive you around the ranch, keep an eye out for the black angus steers which are as common a sight as the birds.
Every year, the family dedicates as much as 6,000 acres of their land specifically to pheasant hunting. They plant food plots of corn, CRP, and more to keep the birds there. Most of which are captive bred and then released into the wild as much as nine months earlier. Make no mistake, there are no barriers keeping them there. And these birds acted just like the wild ones, preferring to keep to the ground and try to slip past you over taking flight. Some did just that on our many pushes throughout the day. The only difference is the bird numbers here are far greater than what you'll encounter on private land. (More on that later.)
Once at the ranch, I briefly met Sal, who unfortunately, could not join us because his daughter was sick. I was in good hands though. Because I was quickly introduced to Brian, one of R&R's most seasoned guides. Although everyone just calls him "Peewee." He's a busy man. He told me he logs as much as 30,000 steps a day during pheasant season, walking back and forth behind the line working the dogs and picking up dropped birds. He estimates he's carried tens of thousands of dead pheasants for clients over the years. In any case, having never bird hunted before, I needed some quick pointers and got a quick crash course on shooting clays out back. My shooting wasn't great, but Brian assured me they've seen worse.
"We've had guys go through a whole box before without hitting one," he quipped.
I shot enough to feel like I had it down and we quickly joined up with the rest of our hunting party. We had booked a one-on-one experience, but Sal recommended we go with the group because we'd kick up more birds. The thing to know about R&R is that it is a completely inclusive experience. You can literally show up with no hunting gear and they will hook you up with everything you need from boots to guns. I had brought ammo, but Brian encouraged me to save them and take a few handfuls of shells from the two Yeti coolers they have on the old school bus they use to transport hunters into the field. One cooler for 12 gauge and another for 20 gauge. The other hunters encouraged me to take a lot of shells because "You'll need them." Little did I know how right they were.
The first spot we hit with a narrow stretch of standing corn approximately 50 yards wide and maybe 150 yards long. Brian positioned me outside on the left wing and we began pushing forward across the field with a couple of blockers on the other end. R&R runs four to five dogs at a time, cycling them throughout the day. As one group gets tuckered out, they put in another to continue the hunt. These dogs constantly weaved in and out of the corn, and past the hunters, searching for birds as Brian barked out commands to them.
We had barely gone 50 yards into the corn when someone yelled: "Rooster!" The bird didn't get far above the corn before being dropped by someone standing in the middle. As we waited for the dogs to retrieve the bird, I looked ahead about 100 yards and could see five or six other roosters running into the corn ahead of us.
A little further down another rooster rose and flew from right to left directly across my lane. I took two shots and missed both times as the bird flew for the safety of another stretch of crop 50 yards away. As we walked further down the lane, I got four or five more shot opportunities which I also missed. I cannot say I was too surprised, having never gone on this type of hunting trip before. There's always a learning curve when you pursue something new. This ended up being our best push of the day. We probably flushed at least 30 roosters out of this single stretch of corn and six or seven took permanent dirt naps. Even though I had never been pheasant hunting before, I knew this experience was not typical.
Our second pass I walked up the middle of a stand of grain crops. We only bumped three or four birds out on this pass. The other hunters noted the birds seemed to be hanging out primarily in the corn this week for food. Our third pass was through another stretch of corn and this time I walked up the middle. Just walking the rows, I could see dozens of roosters ahead of us running down the rows to the other end of the field. About halfway across the field, there was a significant dip in the field. My instincts told me to be on alert and Brian confirmed it with a "Watch this gap."
Sure enough, as I came into a slightly open spot, a rooster lit up and started flying directly over my head. I brought my Mossberg 500 up to my shoulder and drew a perfect bead on the bird. Upon squeezing off my shot I saw the bird immediately start tumbling, landing behind me near the back of the line. I didn't even realize it, but I just yelled "YES!" upon seeing the bird hit. It was a great feeling. After having several misses, it was satisfying to finally bag my first pheasant ever.
There were not a lot of other shot opportunities further down the line and we headed to the next spot. A little later in this drive I drew a bead on another rooster, dropping it. At one point I noticed something ahead that looked strange. That's when I realized it was a young whitetail buck laying in the corn. He jumped up and took off. A moment later a rooster flew up from about five feet from where the buck was laying. This is not just pheasant country, it's deer country too, even if South Dakota is not usually a recognized whitetail state. After we wrapped up a fourth push with several dead birds, but none for me, we started riding back to the lodge. As we got closer one of the guys on the bus motioned out the window: "Check out that rub!"
About 50 yards from the bus was a thigh-sized tree that was freshly rubbed raw from base to about three feet up. It was the largest buck rub I've ever seen in person. I realized it was no fluke once you enter the main lodge and see some of the bucks and replicas they have hanging in there. In the smaller lodge is a 186-inch beast that Brian told me would have been the fourth largest ever taken in South Dakota, had Sal entered it into the record books.
Another highlight is a double pedestal mount featuring a replica of two giant bucks that got locked together just down the road. One of which is a giant non-typical sporting multiple drop tines and stickers. Brian works as a taxidermist in the off-season and mounted that one himself. The bucks were wedged together so tightly, Brian had to cut the skull plate of the smaller one to get them free. The walls are also adorned with plenty of pheasants, whitetails, and more. The Roseland family truly has a little piece of hunting paradise here.
The world class hospitality of R&R continues through the whole day. At lunchtime our group was served R&R's version of a home cooked pheasant enchilada as our group shared stories about previous adventures on this prime piece of pheasant hunting land. They really go out of the way to make it feel like a down home experience when you visit R&R.
In the afternoon, we all piled back into the bus for another go at the birds. At this point, the wind had picked up considerably and the guides recommended I switch over to a 12-gauge auto instead. Which they provided. Our afternoon hunt was a little different since we decided to hunt one of the large sloughs on the property. This portion of the hunt is more of a workout because of the uneven terrain and thick brush.
Part of the slough was flooded, making passing through it impossible and we were forced to go around. We jumped plenty of hens from the near side. As we made our way around the muck, I heard one of the other guys say: "Look at that!"
At the far end of the slough about 15 roosters suddenly decided to flush. Unfortunately, they were out of range and were flying the wrong way. That's hunting sometimes. Eventually our group worked our way back into a stand of corn where we flushed out and bagged a few more birds. My mind was just blown because I had never seen so many pheasants before anywhere.
Our final push of the day was through a low brush/slough where we only pushed out a couple birds on the far end. At the end of the day, I had bagged two pheasants and had missed plenty of others. For my first time ever upland hunting, I was pleased with how things had gone.
We had probably flushed well over 100 roosters on the day. The wild thing was, all the other hunters in attendance told me it was a slow day! The Roselands have a top-tier operation in place, and I can see why their all-inclusive hunting packages are so popular. You could literally detour from a business trip here for a couple of days with no hunting gear and still walk out with a full limit of birds. I knew I had my work cut out for me to try and match the experience on public land the next day.
Public land hunting.
The next morning, Jason and I met up with Wide Open Spaces Associate Editor David Schlake, his dad, and South Dakota Game Fish and Parks representative Chris Goldade for a more DIY-style pheasant hunt. I knew going in that hunting pheasants on public land was going to be a lot more challenging. Fortunately, the Aberdeen area is not lacking in places to hunt. Thanks mostly to the efforts of a few dedicated locals who wanted to provide more access and opportunity for visitors from out of state.
One of the coolest public land projects in this part of South Dakota is the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition. Several years ago, the local chapter of Pheasants Forever teamed with GFP to get local businesses to donate money that is then given back to landowners as a financial incentive to open their private lands to public hunting. The program has been hugely successful and there are now thousands of acres throughout Brown County that are designated Pheasant Coalition walk-in sites. They are marked by teal-green signs and are off-limits to guiding. It's how you can enjoy a completely DIY-style appearance in the pheasant capitol of the world. This was where we started our day of hunting.
In South Dakota, you cannot start pheasant hunting until 10 a.m. We arrived slightly before that and could already hear the roosters crowing in the field. When legal shooting light arrived, we started working the fields, which looked like prime habitat. Of course, on public land, the birds are more pressured and the hunting is much more challenging. Which is what I expected. Especially since we only had one dog, David's dog Sage, and no blockers to guard the escape routes.
Still, that is why it is called hunting and not killing. Sage immediately started working the field. We had only been hunting for about ten minutes when two pheasants flushed, and David called out: "Rooster!" before stopping himself mid-sentence. "No, wait, those are hens!"
Fortunately, David's dad held off on taking the shot and we watched the two hens fly off into the distance. A few minutes after that, a small whitetail buck leaped out of the cover and tore across the fields away from our group. He stopped after about a hundred yards to look back at our group.
The going on this property was rough because the cover was much thicker than what we had encountered the day before. It did not take long for both humans and the dog to get worn out. We circled our way back to the parking area with just the two hen sightings to show for it.
After that we re-grouped and drove several miles away to a Game Production Area, also owned by the city of Aberdeen. The main difference between this property and the one we hunted earlier in the morning was this one had a 200-yard-long food plot planted on it, as well as some more of the heavy cover we'd already been hunting that morning. We worked our way across the field to the food plot and then covered the length of it without kicking up any birds. The cover and forage looked great, but looking back I cannot help but wonder if that second spot may have been worked over by some other hunters earlier that morning. It could also be the birds are more wary of traffic and vehicles and we spooked them upon arrival. We may never know.
One thing is for sure, public land is always going to be more of a challenge than private, so I was not disappointed in the day's events when we wrapped up with no birds to show for it. Nothing is guaranteed while hunting, even when you are in prime ringneck country. Jason and I ended our hunting at this point and left David, his dad, and Sage to go on hunting by themselves. They did manage to kick up a lot more birds and harvest a rooster from public land later in the day. I feel confident in saying that had I had more time, I'm sure I could have harvested a few more birds too, but the hunt was over, and it was time for me to head back to Michigan.
South Dakota is a bird hunter's dream.
Even though I only harvested a couple of roosters, I learned South Dakota is a sportsman and woman's paradise when it comes to upland bird hunting. Even in those public areas where we did not flush any roosters, we saw and heard them on the drive in. The birds are there, you just need to work for them. The locals, the South Dakota Department of Tourism, and GFP, have all done an excellent job managing these properties to be prime habitat for these birds. This is also a relatively cheap hunt since you just need a small game license and habitat stamp. The total cost for my hunting licenses was less than $150, which means this out-of-state-hunt is doable for non-residents on a budget.
And just judging by the number of pheasant hunters in the hotels and local restaurants, the title of "Pheasant Hunting Capitol of the World" is rightly earned by the state of South Dakota. This may have been my first pheasant hunting adventure, but I doubt it will be my last. I now have a new addiction to look forward to every fall!